Under a freeway overpass on Alvarado Street, just 15 minutes away from Occidental, the sidewalks are not lined with oak trees and rose bushes, but with camping tents and cardboard boxes. The residents of these improvised shelters rouse themselves as early as 8 a.m. to walk between the traffic lanes, holding signs that ask for money, food or simply for help. The signs that read “Please help, I’m a veteran” are particularly difficult to avoid and even more difficult to ignore.
As far back as the 1960s, Southern California has been home to about 10 percent of the nation’s veterans. The veteran population has nationally decreased 17 percent since 2000, but there are still an estimated 21.9 million citizens who have served in the military. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that though only 7 percent of the entire population has veteran status, approximately 13 percent of homeless individuals are veterans.
Two weeks ago, the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA) medical center pledged to house over 3,000 veterans still living on the city’s streets. After a four-year-long legal battle, the VA agreed to radically engage its resources toward this effort, but also called for collaboration. A variety of community-based organizations now work with the VA to provide the necessary infrastructure to carry out a comprehensive housing plan.
As part of this collaborative effort, the Haven — a veteran support-based branch of the Salvation Army —provides emergency housing and healthcare services to veterans. For over 20 years, veterans from all over the city have flocked to the Haven’s residential and community integration programs. Lisa Anderson, a program manager of the Haven’s veterans work program, understands the importance of collaboration to permanently end veteran homelessness.
“Some of the barriers that they have are long histories of intermittent homelessness and employment,” Anderson said. “There’s also a lack of understanding of the resources that are available to them or a lack of resources being available to them, depending on their discharge status. It’s really a complex problem.”
The Haven cannot always provide all the resources veterans might need. However, nearby organizations are ready to supplement the Haven and vice-versa.
“We do a lot of referrals from other organizations and to other organizations. If a veteran is in need of services that we don’t necessarily provide in our program, we will find a community resource that does,” Anderson said.
Since she began working with the Haven five years ago, Anderson has noticed several changes. “When I first started working with veterans, predominantly who we were seeing were older veterans from the Gulf War, or pre-Gulf War or Vietnam era that had experienced chronic homeless and some kind of substance abuse,” Anderson said. Anderson also noted that though the organization has worked with younger veterans in recent years, fewer have reported homelessness.
Though a variety of organizations help homeless veterans, Anderson says a significant portion of the at-risk population occasionally goes without help. “Five years ago, we were not able to serve the at-risk veterans [in situations] where if [they] didn’t find a job, they might become homeless,” Anderson said. “We weren’t able to serve them because the funding was not available to serve that population, but there has been more funding available to provide housing intervention.”
In 2014, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at USC published a study on the state of the American veteran. Researchers found that the top five barriers to veterans seeking care or support are not knowing where to receive help, assurance in self-care, concerns about treatment confidentiality, difficulty scheduling appointments and concerns about treatment harming their careers.
These barriers are more prevalent in post-9/11 veterans, over 50 percent of whom forgo treatment because they do not know where to find it and 37 percent of whom forgo treatment in favor of self-care or due to difficulties scheduling appointments. In contrast, 40 percent of pre-9/11 veterans report not knowing where to find treatment, and less than 27 percent prefer self-care or have scheduling issues.
Anderson added that previous sources of funding for these services included regulations that made working together difficult for community organizations. “You weren’t allowed to have two organizations working with the same veteran,” Anderson remembers. “With this newer thought process, [funding sources] encourage collaboration and cooperation [in order to get] the best bang for our buck, so I think there’s a lot of good thinking and talking and collaboration going on for how we can make a difference and make it earlier.” According to Anderson, these changes have been felt just in the last five years.
Of the veterans coming to L.A. county, eight out of 10 of them arrive without a job. Because service members are repeatedly told how valuable their skills are to civilian employers, most expect to easily find employment. However, of the 1,350 veterans surveyed by the USC study, 62 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported that employers are often insensitive to the needs of service members. Fifty-five percent of employers don’t think veterans have adequate skills, 35 percent see veterans as dangerous and 44 percent believe veterans to be “physically broken”.
According to Anderson, preventive measures are more effective than those employed after the fact. “It takes a whole lot less money to help a veteran not become homeless and find a job and stay in their housing than to pay for rehousing and retraining and rehabilitate once they fall into the cracks,” Anderson said. “If you can find them when they’re in the state of looking and help them organize what they want to do and build up that confidence so that they can work in a civilian society, then they can assimilate more into the community. They can start developing contacts and relationships and support systems.”
Until the VA’s pledge comes to full fruition, the Haven continues to provide a well-rounded source of services. What began as a modest emergency temporary shelter has grown into a service that provides treatment programs for substance abuse, mental and behavioral health challenges and community integration. Mayor Eric Garcetti and city council members have helped relieve organizations like the Haven from bearing the full brunt of providing social service.
“When the mayor came into office, he created an office of veterans services for the city of Los Angeles,” Anderson said. “They used to have one back in World War II but then it was shut down.”
Garcetti recently announced that Los Angeles is halfway to the goal of ending veteran homelessness, as 3,375 veterans received housing in 2014. The city estimates that 3,154 veterans remain on the streets.
“There’s always going to be a ways to go, but in my opinion [Garcetti] is really putting his money where his mouth is,” Anderson said.
In collaboration with many social service organizations, the city hosted a “Stand Down” expo at the Convention Center. From Dec. 20-22, homeless veterans could receive health, legal, employment and housing services, among many other features.
“It is a very complicated problem and its not something that you can just throw a whole bunch of money at and solve,” Anderson said. “It really takes a lot of collaboration, research and knowledge and understanding of what is going on.”
While many veterans will benefit from this groundbreaking VA housing pledge, it took a long legal battle to produce the pledge. The largest pro bono legal organization in the nation, Public Counsel, played a large role in the outcome of this solution.
Public Counsel Center for Veterans Advancement
Michael Soller has worked as the communications director of Public Counsel for over four years. According to Soller, the Public Counsel does a variety of work with veterans.
“We help them with traffic tickets, anything that gets in the way of veterans,” Soller said. “If it’s a legal issue, we’ll handle it.”
It may seem that simple access to housing can solve homelessness. However, Soller noted that the reality is quite different. In addition to housing, employment and health services, veterans often need legal help to resolve diverse challenges. Though service members receive guidance on how to approach their issues after their service is complete, many veterans believe that the transition back to civilian life presents a plethora of challenges. But veterans can more easily surmount the often enormous obstacles facing them with just a little bit of help, according to the USC study.
Popular culture is heavily saturated with films, books and works of art depicting the ordeals military members undergo. Though these works are occasionally sensationalist or bordering on inaccurate, Soller says that they help to paint a picture of the impact military service has on individuals.
“It is an incredibly stressful experience being in combat, but [it is also difficult] being separated from their families,” Soller added. “We’ve all read the books, the stories about this.”
Combat can also create more tangible problems for veterans.
“The issues can be the after effects of trauma, of post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury as a result of being in combat,” Soller said. “On top of the issues that people are having, you see veteran substance abuse to cope with the experience.”
A domino effect can ensue as untreated challenges evolve into substance abuse and may lead to clashes with the judicial system.
According to the USC study, 27 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported driving after several alcoholic drinks, 25 percent reported taking unnecessary health risks, 26 percent said they attempted to instigate a fight and 22 percent reported carrying a weapon outside of work duty.
In recent years, the Veterans Treatment Court program has worked to help veterans deal with the justice system. Beginning in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., Justice Robert Russell organized volunteer and federal aid to create a program that used veterans to help other veterans experiencing mental health difficulties. Public Counsel has been involved with this program in Southern California.
“What it tries to say is that veterans have had this special experience and their exposure to the criminal justice system is a result of their experience,” Soller said. “What they need is treatment, not incarceration.”
The problem is especially prevalent in the veteran homeless population. “For years homeless veterans and people who are homeless in Los Angeles are over-represented in the population,” Soller said. “There haven’t been enough options for supportive housing and services to get them off the streets.”
Soller echoed Anderson’s praise for the first steps of the VA housing development. “The federal government, the president and the VA have pledged to end veteran homelessness,” Soller said. “I think that they’ve taken a huge first step to doing that as it involves creating housing, services and programs that will allow veterans to move into permanent housing [and] have access to treatment and long-term social services.”
The Legal Fight for Community
The VA’s efforts have not been without controversy. A now-resolved class action lawsuit claimed that the organization leased significant parts of its site for non-veteran related operations. A baseball stadium, private school and laundry facility for Marriott hotels currently operate on portions of the 387-acre VA campus.
“[The VA] pledged to come up with a plan and to start using the West LA VA campus, which is over in Westwood, as a place for permanent housing for veterans,” Soller said. “That is a huge change and incredibly significant because for years that campus has not been used for permanent homes for veterans.”
In the legal battle, the plaintiffs demanded to know how much income was generated from these leases and where this income ended up.
“They are going to look at the prior leases they had on the campus,” Soller said. “If those leases don’t comply with the law, don’t comply with the goal, there will be an exit strategy for those things that don’t fit the goal. What the VA said was we’re going to make this a veteran-centric place.”
The VA has called for a “public and private partnership” to end veteran homelessness, but their leasing activity will be under scrutiny for the time being. VA secretary Robert McDonald pledged $50 million and 400 workers to the effort and, according to Soller, the homeless veterans’ legal team was assured that “the pledge will have the resources and personnel to get the job done.”
Though the VA has pledged to end veteran homelessness, they have also drafted plans to provide other forms of support to specific groups of veterans.
“They didn’t just limit it to homeless veterans,” Soller said. “They also amplified programs for woman veterans, for older veterans and for veterans with disabilities.”
Their plans include aid for women (there are over 165,000 women veterans in California), seniors (which constitute over 52 percent of all California veterans) and disabled veterans (which constitute 26 percent of national veterans). The proposal would enhance the VA’s Center for Women Veterans and Geriatrics and Extended Care.
Transparency is also a goal of the VA pledge. While many organizations are being asked to step up and collaborate to best serve veterans, VA secretary Robert McDonald will be updated regularly.
“[The VA] is appointing a special assistant, someone who can work directly with the VA here in Los Angeles and report directly to the VA secretary,” Soller said. “This is someone with a direct line to the top leader in the department of veterans affairs.”
Soller described the VA’s new program as proactive. He said the program is focused on making sure veterans have access to mental health services, social service support, and legal help so they don’t run into problems with poverty, substance abuse and untreated trauma.
“We won’t accept that a veteran who served our country doesn’t have these kinds of support,” Soller said. “As a community we won’t stand for that.”
The Occidental community has also joined in on the effort. Recently, there have been proposals to provide single-family housing units for veterans who attend Occidental.
“If veterans come to Oxy, they’ll be in an unfamiliar situation because they’ll be around 28, perhaps married and perhaps have children,” economics Professor Woody Studenmund, a supporter of the housing developments, said. “Their needs will be different than the typical student who comes to the college and it’s in that sort of context that some sort of housing program for veterans would make sense.”
Solving veteran homelessness in Los Angeles will require comprehensive initiatives to support returning Americans in their efforts to find employment, mental and physical stability and sustainable communities. While the LA VA has taken substantial steps to make their pledge a reality, city-wide collaboration will be necessary before it can be effectively completed. However, with aid from service organizations, nonprofits, the city government and local institutions—such as college campuses like Occidental—it is possible to achieve these goals.